Lessons from Chile for a new era of struggle

TONY SAUNOIS examines what type of demands Marxists need to advance in this era to help develop workers’ and young people’s consciousness towards the programme and the organisational forms necessary to decisively overturn capitalism and begin the construction of a new, socialist society.

The explosive mass movements which have rocked Latin America, Haiti, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and some other countries in the recent period all have their particularly unique characteristics but also many common features. They are an expression of the mass anger and opposition to the ruling classes, neo-liberalism, nepotism and corruption which has accumulated over decades. These heroic movements have generally assumed a class character, uniting workers and the oppressed across ethnic, religious and gender divides in a common struggle. A generation of new young workers and students has been at the forefront.

These mass movements have included many classic elements of revolution and the traditional forms of struggle of the working class, including the call for strikes and general strikes. They have also included new features. They have taken place internationally under the shadow of the consequences of the collapse of the bureaucratic Stalinist regimes of the former USSR and Eastern Europe and the capitalist ideological offensive against ‘socialism’ which followed. They have taken place with no strong parties of the working class or left existing. In the past the former parties of the working class, even if on a reformist basis, defended the idea of socialism. In general they have now abandoned any idea of struggling for socialism and embrace capitalism. The hostility towards the former parties of the working class like the Socialist Party in Chile has been palpable, as is the loss of authority of the Communist Party in Chile and other countries, especially amongst the younger generation.

The social uprisings have been of a spontaneous character, lacking organisation and leadership. The spontaneity in these events, especially in Chile, has on the one hand been their strength. Had the reformist and Stalinist former workers’ parties been at the head of them they would have acted as a brake on the movement and probably prevented them from going as far as they have.

At the same time, the absence of organisation and leadership has also been the weakness of the movements. They lack a clear programme, organisation and strategy to take them forward. The limits of a spontaneous movement are now colliding with the tasks posed of how not only to oppose the existing government and system but to put an alternative in its place.

For four months protests involving millions shook Chile to its foundations. Support for the government of president Sebastián Piñera collapsed, with approval ratings standing at a pathetic 6%. According to one poll in January, 56% support the continuation of protests against the government. It floats like a corpse on the sea of Chilean humanity which has flooded onto the streets. Yet it still remains in power. No alternative has yet crystalised.

In many revolutionary situations a period of dual power can develop where both the ruling class and the working class hold each other in check. The ruling class cannot rule in the old way but the working class has not yet seized the power and formed its own alternative government and state apparatus. Such a situation cannot continue indefinitely and one side or the other must eventually prevail. Despite the collapse in authority of Piñera’s regime, however, and the scale of the mass movement, especially in November 2019, the situation did not develop into one of dual power. The lack of cohesion and organisation of the mass movement still permitted the government to continue to function.

Such events sharply pose the crucial issues of programme, organisation, tactics and strategy. Related to these is the question of the political consciousness which exists amongst the working class and the masses, and also the middle class. These are critical questions for the workers and youth involved in these struggles, and for Marxists. There are important lessons which need to be applied in the battles that will erupt in other countries in the coming months and years.

The constituent assembly

One critical question is the demand for a constituent assembly, which has acquired mass support, especially in Chile. This demand is echoed in some other Latin American countries and is relevant to the protests in Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Sudan and some other countries.

The struggle for a constituent assembly has featured in many revolutions – including the bourgeois French revolution of 1789; the Russian revolution in 1917; China in 1927; during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s and in the struggle against the Franco dictatorship in Spain in the 1970s; and in the struggle against the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile in the 1980s and 1990s. In Nigeria it has arisen in the struggle against previous military regimes.

The demand for a revolutionary constituent assembly or national assembly is a bourgeois democratic one. It has generally arisen historically in countries like pre-revolutionary Russia or China where the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution had not been carried through or fully completed. These tasks – the establishment of a capitalist parliamentary democracy, the development of industry, solution of the land question, abolition of the remnants of feudalism, and establishing a nation state – were historically accomplished by the bourgeoisie in a different historical era in what became the industrialised capitalist countries. However, in the era of imperialism, the bourgeois democratic revolution could not be fully completed in the neo-colonial world by the national capitalist class due to its weakness, its ties to and integration with both feudal landlordism and imperialism, and its fear of the working class.

As the Russian revolution demonstrated, the completion of these tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution fell to the working class – combining them with the socialist revolution nationally – which, to be successful, had to be international, linking with the working class in the industrialised capitalist countries. These ideas were clarified by Trotsky in the theory of the permanent revolution which Lenin after 1917 also agreed with.

Under the conditions of semi-feudal or semi-capitalist societies, or under a military dictatorship, democratic demands for a national parliament or assembly are of crucial importance. The illusions that ‘democracy’ will result in the solution of all issues facing the masses is extremely powerful in such conditions. In pre-bourgeois societies, or where the tasks of the bourgeois revolution have not been fully completed, the question of a constituent assembly is important as a means to carry through such tasks as land reform and the unification of the nation, and reflects the class relations in those societies between the working class, the peasantry and the middle class.

Lessons from the Russian revolution

Why has the demand for a constituent assembly now been taken up by the Chilean masses today? Has there not, after all, been a transition from the military dictatorship of Pinochet to the ‘democratic’ parliamentary system?

The call for a constituent assembly is also echoed in some other Latin American countries but in Chile it has assumed a mass character during the recent events. This largely flows from the character of the ‘transition’ which took place at the end of the Pinochet dictatorship. Despite parliamentary and presidential elections, a fig leaf of parliamentary democracy was established. The constitution bequeathed by Pinochet remains. The brutal state machine of his regime remains intact and has continued to savagely repress protests and struggles – especially of the youth and the Mapuche people in the south.

Moreover, since the transition to ‘democracy’, every party and government, including those headed by the ‘Socialist’ Michelle Bachelet from 2006-10 and 2014-18, has continued to apply the same neo-liberal economic and social policies and failed to challenge the state apparatus. All parties – including the Socialist Party and the Communist Party – have been implicated in this.

In the minds of the Chilean masses, the idea of a constituent assembly is linked with the idea of changing the entire political system and putting an end to the neo-liberal model which has dominated since the military coup in 1973. The constituent assembly is seen as a means of solving all of the social problems facing the masses. It was taken up along with the demand to eject the Piñera government and all the existing political parties from power and establishing a ‘new model’. Yet what the ‘new model’ or alternative system should be is not clearly articulated beyond the idea of a more ‘just’ and ‘equal’ society.

What attitude should Marxists therefore adopt towards this question? As in all revolutions or partial revolutions there are two dangers present. One is to buckle to an opportunist pressure and simply support the call for a constituent assembly without explaining what it needs to do to resolve the social issues and demands of the working class and the masses. Alternatively, simply to dismiss it as a parliamentary trap advocated by the ‘reformist’ or ‘Stalinist’ leadership to derail the movement would be to fall prey to sectarianism.

Lamentably, the latter is what the grouping, Izquierda Revolucionaria (IR), in Spain has done. In an article, ‘The class struggle hits the world’, published in December 2019, they correctly denounce the proposals of the Chilean government and criticise the role of the Communist Party in participating in the governmental ‘institutional process’. However, they fail to explain what alternative is necessary. They brush the demand for a constituent assembly aside and muddle it with the Piñera government’s proposal for a Constitutional Convention. “The leadership of the movement has converted from the beginning the demand for a constituent assembly into the central point”, they write, ignoring the enthusiastic mass support which exists for this idea.

While IR concede that for the masses the demand has a very concrete content – to break with the current system – they argue that if the new constitution respects the capitalist order nothing substantial will change. Whilst this is true, what position Marxists should adopt towards this central democratic demand of the masses they leave hanging in mid-air.

They make the astounding claim that “in the Russian revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks did not mobilise the oppressed masses with this demand [the constituent assembly]”. They say “the Bolsheviks raised the demand for peace, bread and land, and the necessity for the workers – leading the mass of the peasants – to take power and establish a democratic socialist regime”.

They dismiss the demand for a constituent assembly and the need to give it a revolutionary socialist content. Implicitly, in the same article they oppose revolutionaries supporting the struggle for it. Yet this issue was crucial for the Bolsheviks at particular stages of the Russian revolution.

Their programme was not only limited to the demands for ‘bread, peace and land’ and a democratic socialist regime. Lenin and Trotsky are crystal clear on this question. In his writings on China, Trotsky explains the situation in Russia prior to the revolution and the approach adopted by the Bolsheviks: “The Cadets used every legal trick to drag out the convening of a constituent assembly in the hope that the revolutionary wave would subside. The Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries took their cue from the Cadets. If the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries had had a little more revolutionary drive, they could have convened the constituent assembly in a few weeks. Would we Bolsheviks have participated in the elections and in the assembly itself? Undoubtedly, for it was we who demanded all this time the speediest convening of the constituent assembly”. (Trotsky, The slogan of a national assembly in China, April 1930, emphasis in the original) Even before the 1917 revolution the three central demands known as the ‘three whales of Bolshevism’ were: the eight hour day, confiscation of the landed estates, and a Democratic Republic, the latter of incorporating the idea of a constituent assembly.

Trotsky, drawing on the experience of the Russian revolution, applied this very concretely to the Chinese revolution in the 1920s, and it formed a part of his critique of the programme and methods adopted by the Stalinists.

Relevance for Chile today

The approach adopted by the Bolsheviks is extremely apposite for the situation in Chile today. The masses are clamouring for a constituent assembly as a means of resolving all of their social and economic demands. Yet the ruling class, Piñera, and the entire official political ‘opposition’, are doing everything in their power to avoid one.

They are not proposing a constituent assembly but an undemocratic ‘Constitutional Convention’. The current government proposes a plebiscite in April 2020 asking for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote to change the constitution. If the yes win, a convention will be convened composed of 50% from existing parliamentarians and 50% from ‘civil society’. Any proposed changes to the constitution will then require a two thirds majority before being put to a second plebiscite. It is a trap for the masses in order to avoid calling a genuinely democratic constituent assembly.

The most right-wing parties, the Independent Democratic Union (UDI) and sections of Renovacion Nacional (Piñera’s party) have declared they will support a ‘no’ vote regarding any changes to the Pinochet constitution. The ‘radical’ Frente Amplio has split, with a section of it supporting the Constitutional Convention. Far from diverting the movement towards a constituent assembly, the Communist Party, “with doubts” and “reservations”, is participating in the fraudulent process proposed by the government. It has called for a ‘yes’ vote to change the constitution while making its own proposals about the composition of the Convention. It is thereby giving legitimacy to the undemocratic Convention and the procedure initiated by the government in response to the mass protests. All the main political parties are doing everything possible to channel the movement away from a constituent assembly for fear of what it would mean. If convened, it could expose them and potentially open the road to a greater questioning of their rule. In order to avoid this they are attempting to divert the movement into an institutional dead end which they control.

Such a manoeuvre to try and contain the revolutionary movement of the masses has been undertaken by the ruling class and reformist and Stalinist leaders in the past. In Spain, the revolutionary movement against the Franco regime was consciously channelled by the Stalinists into a vote to change the constitution in order to head off revolution. The same was done in Chile at the end of the Pinochet dictatorship through a referendum to allow a ‘transition’. This was used by the leadership at the time to head off an uprising, especially by the youth.

Marxists support the mass movement and the demand for a constituent assembly. It reflects different levels of political consciousness amongst the working class, the peasantry and sections of the petty bourgeois. It is necessary to support it on a revolutionary basis, and link it with the need for the working class to build its own independent organisations to convene it and establish an alternative power – a government of the workers and the poor.

Even if a constituent assembly is convened by the ruling class – which under certain circumstances it could be – it can become a crucial instrument in the education of the working class and the masses, preparing them to take the revolution to a higher stage.

Trotsky emphasises this point again in his writings on China when he speculates that, had the constituent assembly been convened earlier in Russia, hypothetically in April, all of the social issues would have confronted it. The ruling class would have been compelled to reveal its position and the treacherous role of the conciliators would have been exposed. This would have assisted the Bolsheviks to win greater support and strengthen their position in the soviets which had been formed in the factories and workplaces. However, as the Russian revolution demonstrated, the demand and struggle for a constituent assembly can be overtaken by events. The importance it assumes during a revolutionary process can vary. The speed of events in Russia in 1917 resulted in the struggle for the constituent assembly becoming redundant as the tremendous authority and power of the soviets increased.

The demand for a constituent assembly directly poses the question of who or what organisations will convene it? It can thus become a bridge to assist workers and the masses to draw the conclusion of the necessity to build their own independent organisations of struggle which can potentially become an alternative power for the working class. In revolutionary Russia in 1917, the working class had, following the 1905 revolution, formed soviets. These were based on the factories and workplaces with elected delegates subject to immediate recall. They became the decisive instruments of struggle, and in October the basis for the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ government.

In Chile today there can be no trust in Piñera or any other government to convene a constituent assembly on a democratic basis. The regime clearly has no intention of convening anything more than a fraudulent sham which will be dominated by the hated existing parliamentary parties and political blocks. At the same time, there are no soviets or similar bodies existing at this stage. It is this aspect of the organisation of the mass movement that now urgently needs to be strengthened in order to take the struggle forward.

The movement and independent workers’ organisations

The only forums so far to emerge at a local or community level in Chile have been the ‘Cabildos’. These are local assemblies of residents and neighbours in the local communities or communes. These ad-hoc meetings are not as yet in general established or stable structures.

They are not comparable to the soviets in Russia, or the ‘Cordones Industriales’ which were formed in the factories in Chile under the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in 1970-73. The Cordones Industriales were powerful organisations, established by the workers and in opposition to the reformist trade union leaders and the mass Communist Party. In essence, they were embryonic soviet-type structures. Coupled with these, in the local communities JAPs – local councils – were initially established by the government. These became strong community-based organisations, which took measures to control prices and prevent hoarding and speculation during the economic blockade and sabotage imposed by the capitalist class.

Today, the absence of such organisations is a weakness in the movement which will need to be overcome if the revolutionary upsurge is to be successful. The lack of such organisations in part flows from the effects of the collapse of the former Stalinist regimes and the throwing back of political consciousness which flowed from it.

It is important that Marxists do not have a fetish about the form of organisation that can emerge during revolutionary upsurges. Trotsky, after all, did not insist that the Russian soviet model be exactly replicated. During the German revolution, for example, he saw the crucial importance of the factory committees which existed in 1923 following the fall in the effectiveness of the trade unions due to economic collapse and hyper-inflation. In the Paris commune of 1871, prior to the development of the modern industrial working class as we know it today, the working class was an emerging force and included a large plebian element. With limited trade unions and larger workplaces, the crucial role in organising the movement was initially played by the central committee of the National Guard. This declared itself the legitimate power as opposed to the official mayors of Paris. In March it convened elections to a 92-member council – elected on a geographical basis of one member per 20,000 residents – which declared the Commune in March 1871.

Today, trade unions, despite their numerical decline and bureaucratic control, remain a crucial and central part of the workers’ movement. They can play a decisive role if they have a fighting leadership and can act as a vital reference point for other social movements and sections of the working class. In Chile this was illustrated by the dock workers in Valparaiso in 2019 in relation to the broader social movement which erupted in the city. Potentially, other layers of the industrial working class, in transport and others sectors, can play a similar role.

At the same time, changes in the workforce into smaller workplaces, the expansion of the precarious sector and changes in social conditions, can result in the emergence of other forms of organisation, such as the social and community organisations which have developed in Chile. These can play an important role in organising the struggle, especially when linked together with the trade unions and the workplaces – and this task can assume an important part of the process of rebuilding the workers’ movement during revolutionary upsurges such as that in Chile.

The emergence of the ‘Cabildos’ in the local communes (neighbourhoods) in Chile potentially can play a crucial role in the next stage of the struggle. The urgent task is to consolidate them on a more structured basis with the election of organising committees of struggle, linked together on a commune, citywide, regional and national level.

In Chile on January 18 an important step was taken with the first meeting of the Coordinadora de Asembleas Territoriales (CAT) in Santiago. Over 1,000 delegates assembled representing 164 assemblies in the Santiago area and 30 more from Temuco and Antofagasta. This potentially is an important step which now needs to be developed. If CAT is strengthened and widened to the workplaces and centres of study, it could potentially take the necessary steps to convene a constituent assembly and lay the basis for an alternative government of the workers’ and poor.

The revolutionary explosion which has shaken Chile is unfolding as a process in which the masses have taken the first tentative steps towards beginning to rebuild their own independent organisations. The convening of CAT represents a significant step forward in the consciousness of the masses. Contained within it are some features of the ‘Poder Popular’ which developed in Chile during the revolution of 1970-73, and included an attempt to build an alternative power based on the working class and the poor.

In Chile today, this process is at a very initial tentative stage and has not yet advanced to anything as developed as that in 1970-73. The revolution then, under the mass pressure of the working class, developed to the point that it terrified the ruling class and imperialism. One year after the government was elected, it was taking steps to establish an ‘internet’ – Project Cybersyn – to coordinate production of the nationalised sectors of the economy throughout this vast country.

Significantly, Allende in 1973 proposed a new constitution which he was initially considering putting to a plebiscite on September 11, 1973 – the eventual day of the military coup. His proposals included recognising Chile as a state created by the workers; the judiciary to be restructured to enable the construction of socialism; recognition of the rights of the Mapuche indigenous people; and the establishment of a Chamber of Deputies elected one per thirty thousand, and a Chamber of Workers elected directly by the working class! However, the leadership of the movement was imprisoned by its refusal to decisively break with capitalism and confront the capitalist state machine, allowing the military to seize power and crush the revolution.

Today the task of Marxists, like the CWI section in Chile, Socialismo Revolucionario, is to intervene with concrete proposals to assist workers and youth to take the process forward.

The question of political parties

The absence of a mass party of the working class, the lack of organisation, and the absence of the idea of socialism as an alternative to neo-liberalism and capitalism, reflect the throwing back of political consciousness following the collapse of the former Stalinist regimes and the ideological offensive by capitalism. The movements in Chile and elsewhere represent a vital step forward in the class struggle. At the same time, they also illustrate that further steps forward are needed to achieve a lasting victory, and the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a government of the workers and the poor.

Marxists need to evaluate each stage of the revolutionary process with a realistic assessment of the strength and weaknesses of the movement. These include the political consciousness of the masses. It is fatal for a revolutionary organisation to romanticise or prettify the situation. During the compressed time scale of the Russian revolution between February 1917 and October, the Bolsheviks, particularly Lenin and Trotsky, assiduously assessed the real situation at each stage. The tactics and slogans they advocated in February, April, July, or August corresponded with the maturing processes and outlook of the masses in the revolution, and assisted them in taking the next steps forward.

The IR forget this elementary Marxist approach. They correctly state that the revolutionary movements in Latin America – Argentina 2001; Bolivia 2003-05; Ecuador 2004-07; Mexico 2006 – all showed the favourable correlation of forces for a “break with the capitalist order”. The same article features the revolutionary movements during the ‘Arab Spring’ and their international consequences. Yet it simply brushes to one side the weaknesses and deficiencies revealed during these movements. Why were they defeated, it asks, in a barbed attack on the CWI, without naming us? “Was it the ‘absence of a socialist consciousness’ or the ‘maturity of the masses’ or was it the betrayals of the Stalinist, reformist and nationalist leaders and lack of existence of a revolutionary party capable of offering a strategy to take power”. The difference with the Russian revolution, it continues, was not the “consciousness” of the masses “but the role of the Bolsheviks in Russia”.

The absence of a mass revolutionary party in these movements was a major factor that prevented the masses from taking power. However, IR fails to pose the next question which arises from it – why a revolutionary party was not present and did not develop? Moreover, why was there not even the existence of strong parties of the working class even of a reformist or left reformist nature? In the same article IR refers to Egypt and the overthrow of the regime and the counter-revolution which followed. Yet it fails to comment that in this process the absence of a workers’ party, even of a reformist character, initially allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to step into the vacuum.

Following the global crisis of capitalism in 2007-08 there was an upsurge in struggle in many countries, and a political radicalisation and polarisation took place. This was reflected in the emergence of Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, the surge in support for Bernie Sanders in the US, and in other developments. These represented a significant change in political consciousness amongst a significant layer. However this had its limitations, reflecting the class character of those involved and the political weakness of the ‘new left’ which had more of a radical populist character than that of a combative socialist left. These processes were a reflection of the political consciousness which existed as a consequence of the continuing effects of the collapse of the former Stalinist regimes. These movements failed to face up to the challenge posed by the depth of the capitalist crisis. As a result, in many countries a vacuum opened up which right-wing populist forces managed to step in to for a period. The ‘new left’ of Podemos, Syriza and others capitulated to capitalism.

The absence of workers’ parties, the weakness or lack of independent organisation and lack of a clear socialist consciousness at this stage, even amongst the majority of the most active layers, are complicating factors in the revolutionary movements which have erupted. The collapse of the former Stalinist states still casts a shadow over the movements, preventing them so far from going further to fight against the capitalist regimes.

The existence of a mass revolutionary Marxist party is critical to complete the revolution and enable the working class to take power into its hands. However, this subjective factor is not schematically separated from the revolutionary objective conditions – a split amongst the ruling class, a willingness to struggle by the working class and the vacillations of the middle classes, together with the broad political consciousness of the masses.

Objective and subjective factors interlinked

Like an ostrich the IR buries its head in the sand and pretends that these obstacles simply do not exist. Everything is schematically reduced to the absence of a revolutionary party. Yet the existence and development of a mass revolutionary party does not take place in a vacuum. There is not a Chinese wall between the political objective conditions and political consciousness of the masses and the building of the subjective factor – a revolutionary party. They are dialectically interlinked. One affects the other. This was demonstrated during the Russian revolution when the Bolsheviks had to struggle as a minority to eventually win a majority amongst the working class. Through experience in struggle, with the onset of a new deeper crisis of capitalism and the intervention of Marxists, these obstacles will be overcome. But to deny they exist is to stumble blindly into the turbulent sea of capitalist crisis and class struggle.

A relatively small Marxist party can rapidly make giant leaps forward and become a large or mass force when the right objective conditions exist. With correct slogans, programme, tactics and strategy, a relatively small revolutionary force can have a decisive impact and assist the mass movement to the steps necessary for taking power and breaking with capitalism. Yet this cannot be done by denying the obstacles which exist and denying reality. This is the method of sectarianism not Bolshevism. Wishful thinking is a fatal flaw for a revolutionary.

The revolutionary upsurge in Chile reflected an advance in consciousness even without a large Marxist party. However, the process is still maturing. The demands for an end to neo-liberalism, for the government to go, for an end to the existing system, are widespread, as is the heroic mood amongst the youth to confront the state machine. These have been positive steps forward. However, they remain limited to demands for a more ‘just’, ‘dignified’ and ‘equal’ society. The idea of the alternative of socialism to the current system has not yet emerged on a mass basis. Denying that such complications exist will not assist the Chilean workers and youth in drawing the necessary conclusions of how the hated Piñera regime and the entire system and economic model can been overthrown, or of what it should be replaced with.